Keri Hulme's The Bone People


When people find out what I do, they almost always ask me for book recommendations, and that almost always puts me on the spot: don’t you hate that? I mean the feeling of blanking out, being like a deer in the headlights. Not the being asked about a book, that part’s nice. Anyway, in grad school I read a book (well, many many many books, but this is about only one of them) entitled The Bone People by New Zealand author Keri Hulme. The book is “about” so many things, carries and intertwines so many themes, and delights post-colonialist scholars with its angsty representation of a culture torn apart by colonization. Blah blah blah. Who cares about any of that? Well, okay, who cares about any of that here, in blogland, where we’re all “off duty”? This book is good. It’s a good book.

I’m not going to write any spoilers because who knows, you may want to get the book from your local library or book store, so no need to skip this bit. The book (I used to have a professor who hated, and I mean positively loathed the word “book” because she felt it belittled the “text”; Geez. And no, Max, no one you know, that was elsewhere. Anyway, the book) focuses on three main characters Kerewin, Joe, and Simon. Kerewin has a “past” and has run away to the beaches of New Zealand to hide from it, and she finds herself drawn to the mute and orphaned Simon–a little boy who is being raised by Joe, who has problems of his own to cope with. The three join together, pull apart, rejoin. But even knowing this much, it’s not at all predictible, and it’s never what you think. And don’t you just love that in a book?

As the book goes on, their story unfolds, the reader is drawn into this story and the representation of both the land and its inhabitants, but even more engrossing (to me) is the use of the Maori language to communicate ideas that both bridge and widen the distance between the native tribes and the English-speaking inhabitants. Fortunately for me and anyone else who doesn’t speak or read Maori, Hulme includes a dictionary of terms and their translations for us. The words she chooses to include are often important to the themes (if not always the plot), so it’s a pretty good idea to flip back and forth to work out what’s being said. Otherwise, it’s a straight, smooth, engrossing read.

Anyone interested in the human heart, history, various cultures, mystery, the supernatural, loss, love, symbolism, loyalty, dreams, and/or a plain old good story should definitely check this one out. One word of caution, however, many of the themes are heavily religious, so if this isn’t of interest to you, it may not be your type of book. The religions denoted are Christian (who could have guessed that from the three central characters, right?) and some sort of pagan religious ideal (not a religion–something deeper, more intuited, less man-made) predating the colonization and influence of Christianity. Oh, and if such things matter to you, The Bone People won the Booker Prize back in 1985.


23 thoughts on “Keri Hulme's The Bone People

  1. I love book reviews here, I hate to read the reviews from magazines and other places, they use all the high words and don’t mean a thing. I will definitely check this book out. The last ones I read were the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Snow by Orhan Pumak, both are fabulous. A must read. This book of yours sounds like Somerset Maugham stories, everyone of them was a gem. Thanks Fuzzy, since you did a great job, I will go easy on the homework. Cheers πŸ™‚

  2. Wheee, I am such a bookworm and constantly on the look-out for new books. Guaranteed I’ll buy 2 new ones at the airport before I fly, and I panic a little if I don’t have anything new to read and rush over to my bookshelf to fish out an old favourite. I almost breathe a sigh of relief when I have a book in my hands.
    I love the smell of bookshops, and libraries, and my dream job would be to run a little bookstore. Sighhh.
    I also wander into thrift shops a lot and pick up a handful of books for a few dollars.
    Yay! Books

    *wanders off realising I sound a little insane*

  3. Thanks for the really interesting tip. I have always loved to read, but it is being sadly neglected in recent times due to my addiction to blogging.
    One thing baffled me a little. Your warning about the religious themes in the book. It almost came across as a warning. Do you think that if someone (me, for example) is atheistic in their belief system they would not be interested in reading a book with religious subtext? It’s a bit of a big assumption to make. I have read many books that have religious themes, but still enjoyed them . It also gives an insight into other’s religious perspective.

  4. Chris, that’s quite an impressive range of books! Have you read any Salman Rushdie? I really enjoy his books, as well.

    Yay! Tally. I love everything about books, too, and you do NOT sounds at all insane; I’m a “yay books” person, as well. Hmmm, maybe we BOTH sound insane to non-yay books people? Shrug.

    Oooh, no, Mitch, you didn’t even cross my mind in my writing of this, to be honest (and I hope not insulting). Yes, it is a warning I’ve written because lots of people are uninterested in, bored by, or even offended by texts with heavily religious themes. It’s a very common complaint we hear about heavily religious overtones in assigned readings (I heard it from fellow grad students, and I hear it from my own students), so my statement about it had nothing to do with any single person or any single ideology, I promise. There is no religious “subtext” in this book; it’s very much a part of the text text. You might like this book, I really don’t know you well enough to say. Huggs.

  5. Just looking at my comment again, it reads like criticism, but it’s not meant to be taken that way. I was just genuinely curious as to why you put in that proviso.

  6. It has been a long time since I have been able to read for relaxation….”The Bone People” sounds like a book that I could really appreciate.
    Thanks for giving me a jump-start.

  7. Well da Fuz I don’t know what you do for a living per se…. I like books that are well written and thought out. Unfortunately as a child I was taught to read under some kind of program which was immediately dropped shortly thereafter as it wasn’t working. Ah the great educational mind, thereis an old term used ” Fuzzy Headed Professors”. I know it doesn’t apply to you. The net result being I was critically behind all the way through school. Talk about making a kid feel stupid was generaly what I got till my senior year when Somebody decided to test me. I had 100% comprehension but could only read about 65 words an hour. (LOLOLOL). Any way reading was such a hard thing to do and the classes were a big help. The problem of vocabulary and spelling stays with me but I am capabile of reading a hole book in a reasonable length of time. Unfortunately as an artist I must work long hours when creating and I don’t always get time to just sit and read. I am interested in this book as when I was growing up I had an exchange student from New Zealand live with me. So I’ve had an intro to the Maori. There was also a movie awhile back that everyone might enjoy about a young Maori girl who’s father was the chief. She had no brothers to take over as chief but she was really the one but tradition prevented it. It also addressed the dieing whales and their religious connection. Als delt with the young being drawn aaway from tribal customs and how that was distroying family and tribe… ,blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I’m going on too much again, sorry , back to da Fuzz

  8. I am always so impressed when you write like this. It is so obvious that you are a scholar…if some asked me to suggest a book it would be, Flowers in the Attic, Vogue or possibly The National Enquirer!

    You make a book sound good enough for me to want to read! Love yeah, BBB

  9. Thanks for the book review Fuzz, not really sure its my cup of t as I tend to read books that are really easy to pick up like young womens fiction, you know the stuff where boys meets girl, boy falls for girl and they live happily ever after type of thing! I love Irish Authors such as Patricia Scanlan, Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly really but sometimes I will pick up a book such as this or a biography. So who knows maybe one day ill get round to reading it. Thanks again Fuzz x

  10. Hi Fuzzy,
    I would much rather have a friend rather than a reviewer recommend a book, and this one does sound interesting as well as educational. I will look for it when I go to the library next week. My last books were the autobiography “Swanson On Swanson” by Gloria S. and “The Sociopath Next Door” (2005) written by psychologist Martha Stout, a good read but dry as a bone content-wise in many places.

    I too, enjoy a book when the plotline is unpredictable and as a rule don’t go in for fiction often, but you’ve presented this one in such a way that it sounds intriguing! Hope you enjoy what is left of the weekend~! @@ hugs, G. xo

  11. No problem, Rainy, I hope you like it!! If you do, when you do, I’d love to hear what you think about it; I’ve got a tag on this for keri-hulme, or you could always mail me. No pressure, though, I know how these things go. Huggs.

    Heyman, thanks for the great comments, and don’t ever feel that you’ve gone on too long; personally, I like longer comments (well, and short ones, too!), so have at it. It sounds like the system really failed you as a student, and I’m so sorry to hear that as you’re obviously very intelligent and should have had closer teaching attention paid you. It also sounds like you have just the foundation for enjoying this book. As with Rainy, why not stop back by if you get to reading it and want to share what you thought . . . ? Huggs, dear.

  12. Everyone: I would LOVE to hear what you think of this book should you get around to reading it. No deadlines, no homework, just find the tag when and if you’ve read it, and drop me a comment about it. Again, no pressure, I just got a book Tally recommended and may not get back to her about it for a year or more!!

    Okay, BBB, thank you as always for your kind words and support! You know that I’m totally cool with your not loving the book reading; thank God everyone’s not exactly alike. What in the world would make us smile or learn or grow? Huggs.

    Ditto, Snuggles, not everyone’s cup of tea this kind of book, that’s for sure. I’ve not heard of those authors, and apart from the usual suspects (i.e. James Joyce) know of only one Irish author off the top of my head, Morgan Llewelyn (though I think she may have begun life as an American?). Do you know her stuff? She writes about ancient Ireland, a lot of historical fiction, including quite a good book about the 1916 rebellion. Gee, there you go again, getting me off on one of my tangents! LOL Huggs to you Snuggles and some yummy catnip tied up with a bow from Banbury to Marm.

    Hi there, Gloria, I also like bios and autobios, and I know you read histories, as well. Do you go in for historical fiction at all? That’s one of my fave genres; I’m thinking of Susan Howatch here, but there are other excellent writers that I enjoy. Your shrink book sounds interesting, but I like my shrink-wrapped criminal books to be about serial killers. The ones that got caught. :)) Huggs to you, and do sleep well (don’t even THINK about that sociopath next door! πŸ˜‰

  13. Ok for a book about a culture torn apart by colonization a must read is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. the novel, his first,
    portrays the collision of African and European cultures in an Igbo village. Okonkwo, a great man in Igbo traditional society, cannot adapt to the profound changes brought by the British conquest of Nigeria. Yet, as in classic tragedy, Okonkwo’s character as well as external forces contribute to his downfall. I read this book in high school and it made such an impact on me that I kept it all these years and recently read it again.

  14. Ooooh, yes, Mavis, that is a great one!! Did you read the three novels that followed that one? I never got around to it, but if you did, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them in comparison to Things Fall Apart. Huggs.

  15. I can’t say I love book reviews….I love when someone I think highly of gives me their opinion on something. That’s gives me a comparison that a normal book review doesn’t. I am a info junkie…I have to be reading something all the time and this sounds like something I can dig off into, so I am going to check it out. Hope you are having the best day to start the best week! Huggs!

  16. When I was in College, I enjoyed reading on expanding civilizations. Certainly, colonization took an innocent simple island by surprize and though the Moari still exist today, they have become underclassed citizens within the New Zealand modern day society. The same could be said for the Malay and the American Indian. My Father in his later years due to retirement has taken a renewed interest in reads that chapter and chronical events of our evolutions.

  17. Hei Fuzz.

    Sounds like a really fabulously interesting book to devour!! Will keep it in mind next time I’m going to the library – well stocked and international in this town. Booker Prize – eh?! Grand stuff. Take care. Rii xx

  18. Thanks for your sweet comment about the Korean drum dances, by the way. I always look forward to your comments πŸ™‚

    You have reminded me that I have been slacking off terribly! lol There are so many books I should be sharing on my blog. Thanks for sharing this read; it sounds cool!

  19. Hi Fuzzy, I love hearing about good books. this sounds like a good one. I read a book when i was a kid about a coloney of rabbits. they also had their own language, and beleifs. there was rules they lived by and governed by. It was really exciting. I remember one word of their language, the spelling im sure is wrong. It is the word for car, Hudrudu. all long U’s. I remember them talking about the farmer chasing them as they went looking for food and about crossing the road. I cant for the life of me remember the name of the book, but it was so good. thanks for this tidbit of literal art.

  20. I forgot, have you ever read anything by Amy Tan? I have read all that I know of that she wrote. i have not read her childrens books though. But her novels are the best, I absolutley couldnt put them down.

  21. hehe, Pris, ever tactful . . . well, now and then I may do a book review, but I’ll try not to make it too boring (and you have my friend pass permission to skip them if you want!). Huggs

    Hi River, thanks for the great comment! You make a really good point about how the people who are originally in a place usually get shuffled aside when that land is “conquered.” Sigh.

    I’m not sure about your reading habits, Rii, but you may just find this a good book! I sure hope so . . . oh, the pressure, what if you hate it? Ugh! Huggs to you Diggy Rii

    I would love to hear about what you’re reading and what you think of the books you are reading, Ceres, so do please blog on them! I plan on blogging on other fave books of mine in the future (no worries, non book lovers, they’ll be few and far between!). Huggs, Ceres.

    Okay, already gave you the heads up on Watership Down, which was a favorite of mine as a kid, too. Though I remember crying a lot, so some of those little bunnies must have died. 😦 I’ve read *some* Amy Tan (and have a funny story about that and my qualifying exams, but then . . maybe that’s only funny to me! :)), and I, too, like her stuff. She’s got a grace with the language and is funny as hell when she wants to be. Huggs TME

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